Fairytale ruins, heavenly beaches and poignant reminders of World War II: The spectacular array of secret archipelagos and islands that lie off the coast of mainland France revealed
- France’s islands are rich in history, with pirates and English invaders among those to arrive on their shores
- Hikers will love wild and verdant Port-Cros in the Mediterranean – its national park boasts three scenic trails
- On the beaches of Ile de Re, you’ll spy bunkers from when German forces fortified the island during WWII
When you think of islands off the coast of mainland France, holiday hotspot Corsica, along with Jersey and Guernsey, are likely to spring to mind.
But as we reveal here, there are plenty more. France is ringed by a spectacular array of archipelagos and islets, some peppered with charming villages and others home to nothing but wildly beautiful flora and fauna.
Many of France’s islands are rich in history, with past centuries seeing the arrival of pillaging pirates, English invaders, and the fierce combat of World War II.
What’s more, time has seen certain French islands transform from barren outcrops to glamorous havens for the rich and famous, with five-star hotels, yacht-laden marinas and tennis courts taking root.
Here, MailOnline Travel pools together some of the most fascinating – and idyllic – islands of mainland France. They’re guaranteed to inspire wanderlust.
Picture-perfect isles that feature include the magical Mont Saint-Michel, which is crowned by a historical abbey, Ile d’If and its fascinating prison, and the island retreat where Napoleon spent his final days before he was exiled to Saint Helena.
Fort du Guesclin, Brittany
Fort du Guesclin lies in the commune of Saint-Coulomb, near the pretty port city of Saint-Malo, which can be reached by ferry from the UK. The isle is accessible only at low tide when a sandbank connects it to the coast. However, as it’s private property, it can only be admired from the mainland – visiting isn’t allowed. In a review, Tripadvisor user ‘Kerry P’ wrote that the island is ‘beautiful to look at and I dream about living there’. The local tourist board says that the first fortress was built on the island around 800AD, ‘probably on the ruins of a Roman construction’. A new fort was built in the 1700s to protect the coast from English landings, while the current property on the island – built on the foundations of the old fort – formerly belonged to the hit French singer Leo Ferre, who died in the early 1990s
Ile de Bendor, Provence
Temporarily closed to the public, this Mediterranean island off the coast of the seaside resort of Bandol – between Marseille and Toulon – is currently in the midst of a five-year restoration project, its website reveals. In the 1950s, the then-barren island was bought by Paul Ricard, an environmentalist and the creator of a spirit now known as Ricard Pastis. Ricard also acquired the neighbouring isle of Les Embiez, with the pair becoming known as the Paul Ricard Islands. Ile de Bendor became a hotspot for the rich and famous in the 1960s, with the artist Salvador Dalí among those to grace its shores. A small marina was built on the island, along with a hotel called Hotel Delos, tennis courts, a diving club, boutiques and a series of restaurants. Ricard also introduced two museums – the Universal Exposition of Wines and Spirits and the Museum of Ricard Advertising Objects. Before the island closed for restoration, a daily ferry service ran to the island from Bandol. It’s not due to reopen to the public until 2026
Ile Saint-Honorat, Provence
Offering an escape from the glitzy crowds that descend on Cannes each summer, this island is just a 15 to 20-minute boat ride from the city. Boats from the mainland depart several times a day, with a return ticket priced at around £13 (€15.50). The isle is named after Saint Honoratus, who built a monastery there around 410AD. While you’re there, go for a tour around Lerins Abbey, where Cistercian monks produce wines and liqueurs of great quality, the Cannes tourist board reveals. Next, you can stop at the island’s La Tonnelle restaurant, sampling the wines and liqueurs of Lerins Abbey and enjoying views of the Bay of Cannes as you dine. A Tripadvisor review by user ‘Dom’ describes the island as having a ‘magic ambience’
Ile d’If, Marseille, Provence
Ile d’If has a fascinating claim to fame – it’s here that Edmond Dantes, the lead character in Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 bestseller The Count of Monte Cristo, was imprisoned. The Chateau d’If fortress on the island, which is the smallest island in the Frioul archipelago – which lies around two miles off the coast of Marseille – was built in the 1500s by Francis I of France, who wanted to use it to ‘protect the coast from invasion’ and ‘provide cover for the new royal fleet of galleys’, the Chateau d’If website reveals. It was later used as a state prison. ‘Anyone opposing official authority was imprisoned here from 1580 until 1871, especially Protestants and Republicans,’ the website says. Open to the public since the end of the 19th century, the island can be reached by boat from Marseille – a one-way ticket is priced at £4.80 (€5.60) – and guided tours of Chateau d’If are available. Image courtesy of Creative Commons
L’Ile d’Aix, Nouvelle-Aquitaine
Cars aren’t allowed on this ‘wild and rugged’ isle, which sits in the Charente archipelago off France’s western coast, south of La Rochelle. Instead, holidaymakers can explore the island’s historic sites by ‘foot, by bike or in a horse-drawn carriage’, the local tourist board reveals. Its checkered history is eye-opening – it was briefly owned by the English during the Hundred Years War and was used as a prison during the French revolution, but its most famous visitor is Napoleon, who spent his final days in France on the island before he was exiled to the isle of Saint Helena. Today, it’s home to several museums on the island, including the Napoleon Museum, and offers spectacular views of Fort Boyard, an offshore fortification that was made famous by the action-adventure TV show of the same name. A popular summer house destination, there are also five beaches to discover, as well as vineyards, sandy creeks, and cliffs, the tourist board notes. There are some permanent residents on L’Ile d’Aix and it can be accessed by boat year-round from the town of Fouras, roughly three kilometres (two miles) away
Ile de Brehat, Cotes-d’Armor
‘Brehat may be a small island (3.5 km by 1.5 km), but it’s big in surprises.’ So says the local tourist board of this outcrop, which lies near the town of Paimpol in Brittany. It’s made up of two islands connected by a bridge, with a harbour, a village, privateer houses and a 16th-century church on the southern side and purple moors and stone walls that ‘have a little touch of Ireland about them’ on the northern side. ‘In the spring, the songs of tits, finches, robins, thrushes and other songbirds will delight your ears,’ the tourist board reveals. Other attractions on the isle include the Paon and Rosedo lighthouses, the charming St-Michel chapel, and the pebbled Guerzido beach. From his stay here, the famous modernist painter Marc Chagall was inspired to paint his 1924 work La Fenetre Sur l’Ile de Brehat. Feeling inspired yourself? Visit the island via the daily ferry service, Les Vedettes de Brehat, which departs from various locations on the mainland
Even though it’s known to locals as ‘witch’s island’ – likely because its name is similar to the word ‘groac’h’, which means a witch in Breton – Groix is an idyllic holiday spot. Set 45 minutes from the town of Lorient by boat, its permanent population of around 2,000 surges with holidaymakers each summer. Make sure to go for a stroll along the white sands of Grands-Sables (pictured upper left), which is the only convex beach in Europe, a local tourism website reveals. There are plenty more unusual attractions to visit – in the early 20th century, Groix was the country’s leading tuna fishing port, with the isle’s former cannery now a museum, and in Le Bourg, the island’s main village, you can spot a fish hanging over the church tower. What’s more, near the cliffs of Pen-Men, you can see bunkers that were used as shelters by German forces during the Second World War, the island’s website reveals
L’Ile de Noirmoutier, Pays de la Loire, west of Nantes
Describing L’Ile de Noirmoutier, the French painter Renoir said: ‘It is an admirable place, beautiful like the south but with a sea that is more beautiful than the Mediterranean.’ You can discover this beauty yourself by driving to the island on the bridge that connects it to Fromentine on the mainland, or along Le Passage du Gois, a submersible road that comes and goes with the tides. Salt-water marshes cover nearly a third of the island and there are 40km- (25 miles) worth of beaches to explore. Historical highlights on the island, meanwhile, include the museum in the Old Chateau of Noirmoutier, which houses ‘a bullet-riddled armchair that was witness to the fate of a French Royalist military leader, General Maurice d’Elbee, who took part in the Vendean war in 1793’, the island’s website reveals
Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy
With its fairytale appearance, this tidal island – a Unesco World Heritage Site – is a haven for photographers. It lies in a bay shared by Normandy and Brittany and can be reached by foot or by a special horse-drawn carriage service. Back in the early 8th century, the bishop of a nearby town claimed that the Archangel Michael had come to him and instructed him to build a church on the isle, the island’s website reveals. The Abbey of the Mont-Saint-Michel was subsequently constructed and ‘became a renowned centre of learning, attracting some of the greatest minds and manuscript illuminators in Europe’. The website notes that the ramparts at the base of the island were built to keep the English forces out. Today, the isle is home to museums, restaurants, hotels and shops for tourists. Visit in the summertime and you can witness the ‘Chronicles of the Mount’ night show, when the doors of the Abbey are opened after dusk and visitors ‘are treated to a spectacle of state-of-art light and sound effects’ in the abbey’s chambers
On a visit to Mont Saint-Michel, it’s worth popping by Tombelaine, a little tidal islet that lies in the same bay. Be wary on the approach – quicksand makes up part of the route to the granite outcrop. Back in the 11th century, two monks lived on the isle as hermits, and later, in 1423, it was occupied by the English as they plotted an attack on Mont Saint-Michel. In more recent history, the island was part of a clever ploy to generate tourism in the area – to boost its romantic appeal. According to Normandy Then and Now, two French brothers discovered a local fisherman known as Jean le Deluge who lived on Tombelaine. Taking his photograph, they fabricated a story about him, claiming he was a wealthy aristocrat who lived on the islet and giving him the name Marquis de Tombelaine. The website notes that in 1892 Jean le Deluge drowned in the bay at the age of 39, but his legend lives on. Acquired by the state in the 20th century, Tombelaine has been a bird reserve for seabirds since the 1980s
Port-Cros, Hyeres, Provence
This car-free island in the south of France, not far from Saint-Tropez, is a hiker’s paradise, with 21 miles of trails. ‘Be Robinson Crusoe for a day and set upon the island’s marked trails, losing yourself among the arbutus and cistus trees,’ the local tourist site says. If you like the idea of staying on the island, you can check into Le Manoir hotel, which was built around 1840, arriving via ferry or water taxi from Hyeres or Le Lavandou. Pictured is the isle’s Fort de Port-Man, one of several forts on the island. It has been a peaceful National Park since the 1960s, but it endured ‘stormy’ times prior to the 20th century. ‘For centuries, Port-Cros was regularly ransacked by pirates mooring on its coasts,’ the website reveals. In the 1500s, it was used as a home for convicts, which ‘only worsened the level of crime and looting’. In August 1944 during World War II a German garrison of 150 men battled – and were ultimately defeated by – American and Canadian troops
Porquerolles, Hyeres, Provence
Just to the west of Port-Cros is Porquerolles, a crescent-shaped island measuring 4.3 by 1.8 miles that’s also car-free. It has steep cliffs and creeks to the south and stunning beaches with turquoise waters to the north – the standout strip of sand being ‘Notre Dame’. The island’s village dates back to 1820, and there’s a pretty lighthouse and a church from the same century. In 1912, the island was purchased by the Belgian adventurer Francois-Joseph Fournieras as a gift for his wife, Sylvia, and he went on to build vineyards on the land, later acquired by the state. The island is just 10 minutes from Hyeres by boat, with ferries running all year round, and best explored by bike – there are lots of hire shops at the port
A boat from Quiberon on the mainland will whisk you straight to Port de Palais, this Breton idyll’s chocolate box capital, where you can wander past colourful houses before exploring the Citadel Belle Ile (pictured foreground), an angular 17th-century fortress that now functions as a museum and a hotel – though it’s temporarily closed for restoration, the island’s website reveals. Between the late 1800s and 1922, the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt spent her summers on the island, living in the fortress of la Pointe des Poulains – the remains of which operates as a museum today. She was joined by family, friends (King Edward VII was one visitor) and her menagerie of animals – which included an Andean wildcat, a boa constrictor and a hawk. After you’ve visited her fortress, climb the 247 steps to the panoramic balcony on top of the 19th-century Grand Phare lighthouse, or check out the ‘the needles of Port-Coton’ – a series of jagged rocks in the sea that once inspired a painting by the impressionist artist Claude Monet. Sun worshippers, meanwhile, will enjoy the crystal clear waters of Les Grands Sables beach, a popular spot for bronzing and sea kayaking
Ile d’Yeu, Vendee, western France
People have settled on Ile d’Yeu since prehistoric times – engraved rocks and bronze and iron weapon tips have been discovered there, the island’s website reveals. In the Middle Ages, a monastery dedicated to Saint-Hilaire was founded on the island, with monks clearing the land for cultivation and expanding the quaint village of Saint-Sauveur, which remains today. The English arrived on Yeu in 1355 and occupied it for nearly 40 years, until they were cleared out by the French nobleman Olivier de Clisson V, the website reveals. A must-visit on the isle is the Le Vieux Chateau, a striking fortress jutting out into the sea that was built during the Hundred Years War and later inspired the TinTin comic ‘The Black Island’. ‘The scarred rock coupled with the stormy Atlantic [Ocean] makes it a majestic sight,’ Tripadvisor user Leopold said of the attraction. There are also fine sandy beaches to discover, while the Pointe du But on the southwest of the isle is known for its picturesque sunsets. It takes around half an hour to reach the island by catamaran from the port at Fromentine, with the service operating year-round
Cavallo, off the coast of Corsica
Tucked near the southern side of Corsica, this private island is peppered with ‘wild beaches and hidden coves’, the island’s website reveals. It’s the only inhabited island in the archipelago of Lavezzi, and there’s just one hotel, the five-star Hotel & Spa des Pecheurs. Nowadays, it’s a haven for scuba diving and sun lounging. In 1978, the island made headlines around the world when it was the scene of the fatal shooting of the teenager Dirk Hamer. The exiled Prince Vittorio Emanuele of Savoy, Prince of Naples, admitted liability for the teen’s death
Ile de Re, Charente-Maritime, west coast
Attracting the rich and famous, A-listers Johnny Depp and Katy Perry are among those who are said to have holidayed on this island. It’s filled with hotels and guesthouses and can be reached via the Ile de Re bridge, which connects to the city of La Rochelle. On a visit, check out the island’s oyster shacks and take in views of the Atlantic Ocean from the top of the Phare des Baleines lighthouse. History buffs will be drawn to Saint-Martin-de-Ret – the port town is ringed by the Unesco-listed star-shaped ramparts from the 17th century. What’s more, on a walk along the island’s sandy beaches, you might spy derelict bunkers from the Second World War, when German forces fortified the island. It has another link to military history – the isle was used as a filming location in the 1960s war movie The Longest Day, which recounted the events of D-Day
Ile d’Oleron, Nouvelle-Aquitaine
This picture shows Saint-Denis d’Oléron, the northernmost town on Ile d’Oleron, a pretty island in the Atlantic Ocean that connects to the commune of Bourcefranc-le-Chapus on the mainland by a bridge. The island was formerly owned by the English – in 1306, Edward I of England gifted it to his son as part of the Duchy of Aquitaine, though it was reclaimed by the French two centuries later. There’s plenty here to keep travellers occupied – visit the Marais aux Oiseaux bird reserve and stroll through the island’s pine forests and sandy beaches, the island’s website reveals. It’s dotted with several quaint towns and villages, with La Bree les Bains, a small fishing village with a charming preserved mill, one of the most popular. While you’re on the isle, pull up a seat in a restaurant to try freshly farmed Marennes-Oleron oysters, a local delicacy
Ile Callot, Brittany
From above, this pretty little Breton isle is shaped like a seahorse. Keep an eye on the tide times when you’re planning your visit – it takes roughly 20 minutes to walk to the 2km- (one mile) long island via a tidal passageway from the town of Carantec. When you make it across, the local tourist board recommends marching along the ‘stunning’ walking track that rings the island or trying cockle fishing by the shore. After a picnic lunch, climb to the isle’s highest point to admire the stained glass windows and striking bell tower of the Notre Dame de Callot Chapel, thought to date back to the 5th century. Impressed, Tripadvisor user ‘ John C ‘ praised the ‘glorious white sands and scenery’ he witnessed during his visit
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